Planting to bring birds to your yard

American spicebush in flower. Its berries attract numerous bird species. Philip Bouchard via Creative Commons

American spicebush in flower. Its berries attract numerous bird species. Philip Bouchard via Creative Commons

By Henry Lappen For the Gazette

Friday, April 08, 2016

As spring unfolds, many of us feel the urge to plant. But then we go into a nursery or garden center and are surrounded by thousands of plants. How does one choose? So many colors, sizes, shapes.

For me, the choice is a bit less daunting: I try to pick plants with the most ecological benefit — native, and attractive to birds and butterflies. I look for beauty, too. But a flock of colorful birds will be at least as beautiful as showy flowers.

Large shade trees, of course, offer the most environmental support. Sugar maples, red oaks, shagbark hickories, etc. will provide beauty, shade, habitat and more for the rest of your life and probably your grandchildren’s lives as well. They clean the air, filter runoff and increasingly remove carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

But there are many smaller beneficial plants as well. Although they may not help as much globally, they do wonderful things locally. I seek out those that provide food and shelter for birds. Why spend money filling bird feeders when you can easily grow your own? And the variety you can attract to your yard is astounding.

Do you love bluebirds? Try arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum). This is an attractive native shrub growing to 10 feet in height and similar width. It doesn’t have such showy flowers as other varieties of viburnum. But in September, our native bluebirds will flock in to dine on the blueish-black fruit. Who needs flowers when you can see that divine blue flitting about?

How about cedar waxwings? Although they certainly love crabapples and ornamental pears, no plant draws them in like American cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus), another native viburnum species.

These bushes, which grow to eight feet or so, hold their beautiful red berries all fall and winter until the gorgeous waxwings come to feast in early March. You can eat these berries, too. They taste quite a bit like typical cranberries though they are not related. But I prefer to leave them for the waxwings.

Other plants are fed upon by multiple species. My all-time favorite is American spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

Although normally a wetland plant, mine are thriving on dry sandy soil, The spring flowers are a gentle yellow, the foliage pale green, and the fruit in September bright, bright red.

I’ve seen mockingbirds, catbirds and brown thrashers eating them. And if you live in a less open habitat than I do, I imagine you will find various migrating thrushes joining them.

Spicebush berries are a human culinary delight as well. Too strong to eat straight off the bush, I dry mine and grind them up as a delicious, locally grown allspice substitute.

And if all this isn’t enough to get you to try some, this plant is also the host of the beautiful spicebush swallowtail butterfly. These stunning butterflies roll up the leaves and lay their eggs inside where their caterpillars develop. The later stages of these larvae are quite bizarre-looking, bright yellow-green in color and sporting a large “eyespot” marking that helps deter predators.

Blueberries and sweet cherries are usually planted for human consumption but if you put in an extra un-netted plant, you will find multiple species competing to eat them. Putting a mulberry tree (Morus rubra) nearby will keep the birds busy and leave you more of the cherries which fruit about the same time.

I’ve seen as many as eight Baltimore orioles in a single red mulberry tree.

For the more ambitious, I suggest American filbert or hazelnut (Corylus americana). These plants, which are not hard to grow, grow into a thick hedge and readily put out loads of delicious but tiny nuts.

Your yard will become a haven for squirrels and chipmunks. They’ll eat most of the nuts, but don’t be surprised to find wild turkeys or pheasants coming in for a meal as well. And as a hedge, they’ll provide catbird breeding habitat.

This is just a sample. There are many, many more native, beautiful and wildlife-attracting bushes and trees out there: juneberry, river birch, hop hornbeam, red osier dogwood, elderberry, winterberry…. The next time you are in a nursery or garden center, just walk right past the all-too-common forsythias and lilacs and see what’s out there. And then keep your cats inside and enjoy the natural, native, never-need-refilling bird feeders.

Henry Lappen is an environmental educator who performs the show “A Passion for Birds” and the chair of the Amherst Public Shade Tree Committee. Visit his website.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us

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